The push to reach the rim of Kilimanjaro fell into thirds.
The first third was the most difficult. It was a battle of emotions. Climbing through the night, nothing existed but bootheels in a headlamp. Crunch. Crunch. Scrumble. Each climber retreated into a private world of swooshing nylon and loose gravel. Swish. Swish. Shoop. I aimed for the track vacated by the man in front of me. Gravity tugged at every edge. A miss could mean a slide. Even a hit could mean a slide. A slide was bad. A slide was emotionally expensive.
From time to time the talus gave way to solid rock. This would be a respite, except for the fact that it often required a scramble. Churning legs were then joined by churning arms. The thought flashed periodically: I can't take seven hours of this! The temptation to quit was strong.
In the second third of the night, the slope moderated. As emotions dulled the battle became one of stamina. The mountain consumed the starry sky. Hours passed. We climbed mindlessly without reference. Cold wrapped us like a blanket.
A few hikers came down the trail wearing defeat.
I distinctly remember one woman. I caught her in my headlamp. She might have pretty in another place but she was beyond defeat here, maybe even beyond consciousness. She was draped between the wings of two laboring guides. Her head was lolling. Her toes were dragging. That little Piper had stalled.
There was no sign of Mo, Vlad, and Rachael. We could only assume that they were still on the move, somewhere. Did we pass them and not know it?
In the last third of the night the trail went steep again. Very steep. It was a battle of focus. Powder and scree made the slow-motion scurry more precarious. What would have been an easy scramble under normal circumstances became a labor. Not knowing what kind of precipice was lurking beyond the reach of our headlamps created a dull tension. Exhaustion mounted; my brain felt sloppy.
Recently I asked several team members for their thoughts about that night.
Mo and Rachael were part of the team of three. Mo wrote, "My only thought was a constant worry and fear. I was praying that nothing would happen to Rachael."
For her part, Rachael said, "The cold . . . I remember the cold . . . there was one point where I felt my hands suddenly start to get warmer again and I just remember thinking, That can't be good! I also remember just how quickly everything froze!"
Jason lamented. The beer he carried up for a summit celebration didn't freeze. "BUT MY NALGENE (water bottle) DID." He added the whole thing was "a crazy blur." Afterwards, I told everyone how tedious it was, just "looking at rock or the dude's butt in front of you so that you don't trip."
Nico wrote, "to be honest, the details of that night are pretty hazy – chalk it up to a mix of low oxygen, sleep deprivation, and the mounting adrenaline."
Rachel added, "I just remember this stunning moonrise over Mt Mawenzi. It had this incredible glow around it and sat against a beautiful backdrop of stars. Indeed, the only sense of time I had going up the mountain was watching the moon glide across the sky."
The group of seven continued through those moonlight hours, plodding, scrambling, slipping, grunting, breathing. We paused to to drink, pee, or inhale calories. It was an mix of fear and awe, beauty and pain.
One who has never climbed a mountain like Kilimanjaro might be surprised to learn that there is nothing particularly technical, tricky, or ultra-athletic about it. Apart from medical conditions which are beyond one's control, those who make it to the top are those of sound body who possess the will to simply take one more step . . . and then another . . . and then another.
In this way, the mountain was slowly pulled back like a window shade. More and more stars appeared overhead. Then the dark began to tire. A warm glow creeped up the eastern sky.
Rachael again: "The moment I thought we might actually make it will always stick with me. I remember feeling quite giddy and noticed that Mo also looked quite unsteady. It was at this point that I looked up and started to see the tiny glows of headlamps disappear over the top. I remember saying to Mo, 'It's just there, we are going to make it.' And it was the first time I let myself believe it."